The highest-profile documentary in this year’s Oscar race, “Icarus,” was picked up by Netflix at Sundance for $5 million. Netflix marketers adeptly surfed the news cycle to make sure their subscribers as well as Academy voters know that this movie is at the center of the Russian doping scandal.
With the Olympics front and center at the height of Oscar balloting, this movie could well be watched by the most people and squeak past its two main rivals, Cannes prize-winner Agnes Varda’s “Faces Places,” whose co-director JR was profiled on “60 Minutes” Sunday, and “Last Men in Aleppo,” which has gotten a fresh wind of attention from the Muslim travel ban.
“Icarus” director Bryan Fogel is an unexpected documentarian, to say nothing of an investigative journalist. He started out in Hollywood as a standup comic and actor, but found early success as the creator of a hit Coast Playhouse and Broadway play, “Jewtopia,” which he grew into a touring company, a book, and a movie. He eventually came up with the “Icarus” documentary as his next career move.
As a racing cyclist, Fogel thought he could create a “Super Size Me” movie about doping in sports — injecting himself in the butt with steroids to prove how easy it is to evade detection, as Lance Armstrong did for years. Instead, he stumbled onto a much bigger story with global impact: the Russian Olympic doping scandal and riveting drama of his doping expert, Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenko, who ran the government’s anti-doping lab until he fled the country in danger for his life.
He helped to uncover the indisputable evidence of doping that led to the banning of Russia from the Olympic Games (with loopholes allowing certain athletes to compete neutrally). “And so, the story continues to unfold as to the ultimate punishment for the scandal,” Fogel told IndieWire. “And of course, for the longterm prospect of Grigory’s life.”
Fogel no longer has any personal contact with his subject, and feels terrible about what has happened to his friend. “I have zero way to be in touch with him,” he said. “But, at least I’ve been told through his legal counsel that he’s okay. But I know that he’s living under 24-hour protection, and according to his attorney, Jim Walden, he’s essentially the number one most wanted on Russia’s kill list. So it’s incredibly disheartening to see that essentially the actions of a whistleblower, that were so brave and bold, has such severe ramifications and consequences, in terms of his protection and life moving forward.”
Fogel shrugs off his own vulnerability. “I try not to think about that,” he said. “For me, it was an honor to be able to bring Grigory’s evidence forward, to have this story come to me, and then be able to work with my team so diligently to see to it that this story came forward. And I made those choices and I accept those risks. But the person I’m really worried about is Grigory, not myself. I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to see his family again, and it’s to be determined as to whether or not he’ll ever be able to walk the streets again, because right now he certainly — according to what we’ve been told through his lawyer — is being hunted.”
Nothing about this movie went to plan. And after three years and thousands of hours of footage, Fogel wasn’t ready to let the film go after Sundance. “I think there is a better movie here,” he told Netflix’s Lisa Nishimura, “if you will allow me to continue to work on it.” He trimmed the front, and added more breaking news footage, enhanced graphics and sound, and new opening and closing sequences “to make the narrative more immediate and theatrical,” he said. “Things were still unfolding in Russia that I didn’t have time to comb through.”
Fogel also cut to the shocking twist more quickly, leaving many interviews on the cutting-room floor. They no longer pertained to the Rodchenko. The movie’s new tagline: “Truth is the new banned substance.”
In the version released on Netflix August 4, Fogel is more Sebastian Junger than Morgan Spurlock. He tried to protect his subject and raise legal fees. Rodchenko eventually came to America, where the U.S. government put him under a gag order (Fogel acted as his proxy) and gave him protective custody. “When I set out to make the film, I could never have imagined where it was going to go,” said Fogel. “I wanted to lift the veil on anti-doping in sports. Lance Armstrong never failed a test until his own teammates ratted him out.”
In the film we see Fogel connect with Rodchenko over Skype, who counsels him on what and how much to take while he’s training, freezing his urine as he goes. During this period, the two athletes’ friendship grew. Fogel, who never considered himself an investigative journalist, began to worry about the negative impact his documentary could have on his Russian friend.
“For me, the story was me going through on camera what pro athletes do,” he said, “with this crazy Russian scientist advising me, which he shouldn’t have been doing. He was funny and compelling as he sees me evading testing and interviewing sports leaders and anti-doping officials.”
Fogel edited together a 25-minute sizzle reel that wowed top documentary writer-producer Mark Monroe (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”). He brought Fogel to top investor Dan Cogan of social-activist documentary funder Impact Partners; he gave Fogel much-needed support when things started to get hairy. “From that moment on, he was my partner in crime,” said Fogel, who also credits venture capitalists Jim Swartz and David Fialcow. “They had my back every step of the way while I was doing this daily heavy lifting. It was incredibly stressful.”
He needed their help when the time came to find lawyers to help Rodchenko navigate his escape from Russia, where the media was portraying him as a villainous wanted man and enemy of the State — and whose close friend in the anti-doping world was mysteriously killed. Rodchenko left his family behind in Russia and arrived stateside with a hard drive full of evidence of the Russian Olympic team’s extensive doping and elaborate evasion of testing at the 2014 Sochi Games — literally swapping out tampered bottles in the middle of the night.
“We were sitting on a nuclear bomb,” said Fogel. “The only people who had this information were me and Grigory. It was scary when I understood how big it was, and what it could mean in terms of changing Olympic history. It was fraud on an international level that made Armstrong look like a needle. And I had Grigory’s life in my hands.”
His athlete’s unflappable tenacity and perseverance helped Fogel get through the panicky six months before Sundance. Fogel had to collect and translate evidence, which he took to the New York Times, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the International Olympic Committee — all while finishing a movie. In the rush to Sundance, Fogel was juggling seven editors and four assistants, one fluent in Russian, who worked with all the translators. “In the middle of this global scandal, we were calling the shots because we had the evidence,” he said, “which we presented to WADA and the head of the IOC. They had no choice but to let us film it. We presented them with the end of Olympic history.”
Besides coming up with enough money to pay for the movie, Netflix goes to 100 million subscribers in 190 countries around the world, including Russia. “I wanted to make sure this film was seen on a global level,” Fogel said, “in every language on Planet Earth. So people can see how every athlete was defrauded and cheated for generations.”